What's in the Apocrypha? - 2 Maccabees
When speaking of the historical development of the Bible, one often hears about the Apocrypha. Yet, very few people really know what the Apocrypha is, much less what it contains. The word itself means “things that are hidden/secret.” But this designation does not lend much help to the curious reader. Essentially, these are books written in a similar style to Biblical Old Testament books but whose authorship, in the majority of cases, is uncertain. What is known is that these books were never understood to be authoritative by the Jewish people but were regarded as generally reliable in areas such as history (i.e. the book of Maccabees).
The Roman Catholic Apocrypha consists of Tobit, Judith, the Additions to Esther, the Additions to Daniel (the Prayer of Azariah and the Three Young Men, Susanna, and Bel and the Dragon), the Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus (also called Sirach), Baruch (also called 1 Baruch), the Letter of Jeremiah, 1 Maccabees, and 2 Maccabees. The Greek Orthodox Church adds 1 Esdras, Psalm 151, the Prayer of Manasseh, and 3 Maccabees, with 4 Maccabees in an appendix. The Russian Orthodox Church adds 1 Esdras, 2 Esdras, Psalm 151, and 3 Maccabees. The Roman Catholic canon places the Prayer of Manasseh, 1 Esdras, and 2 Esdras in an appendix without implying canonicity.
From an Evangelical perspective, these books are certainly not recognized as authoritative nor inspired by God. But for the Evangelical scholar or curious Christian, there is much that can be learned from these books. Several of them give helpful histories of the Intertestamental Period (the more than 400 years between the ending of the Old Testament writings and the beginning of the New Testament events), and others give helpful background understanding for certain theological themes and understandings by the Jewish people during the time of their writing. Many Biblical themes are touched on in these Apocryphal writings as well. Perhaps the most significant theme is the expectation of a Messiah who was to come: who he was and what he would accomplish. Because of the helpful background these books afford as well as the limited exposure most Christians have had to these books, I thought I would write a few book reviews on some of these Apocryphal books. My hope is that it will help inform those who are unaware and that it might pique the interest of some curious souls to read for themselves. Enjoy!
Many changes occurred in the Jewish mind between the Old Testament and New Testament. When one reads Matthew, Mark, Luke & John, it is often difficult to understand exactly how the Jewish religious leaders at the time of Christ could have ignored so many major Old Testament texts about the role of the Messiah. When one considers, however, that the Jewish people had undergone a significant paradigm shift as it pertained to their leaders, the picture becomes more clear. The Jewish mindset and expectation for Messiah-like leadership in the intertestamental period had shifted to a predominately political and military leader rather than a spiritual entity.
This shift is clearly seen in the book of 2 Maccabees in the form of Judas, a main character in the book and part of the Maccabean family, who became not only a political, but also military leader. The book of 2 Maccabees focuses on the Maccabean revolt against Antiochus IV Epiphanes. In heroic fashion, the Maccabean family was a prominent Jewish family that chose to mount an uprising against the Seleucid Empire that dominated Israel. After many atrocities by Antiochus IV Epiphanes – the ruler of the Seleucid Empire during this time – the Maccabeans began to fight back and eventually threw off the tyrannical Seleucid Empire. Ultimately, the book is an extension and elaboration on a portion of 1 Maccabees but with added material from Pharisaic tradition as well as other embellishments. This intriguing book covers the time in Jewish history between 180-160 B.C.
At this time, the mindset of the Jewish people toward leadership was clearly changing to that of a political/military entity. Originally this was for the cause of freedom to worship as the Torah dictated, but later this mindset changed to more of a political connotation. The first chapter states, “It was He [God] who drove out those who fought against the holy city.” But the God-centered mindset undergoes a significant change toward the end of the book when the Holy City and God are no longer the object, but only as it pertains to the freedom of the people and the battles won to give them a type of “Golden Age” rule.
Later in the same chapter the writer seems to evidence this shift in a prayer: “Gather together our scattered people, free those who are the slaves of the Gentiles, look kindly on those who are despised and detested, and let the Gentiles know that you are our God. Punish those who tyrannize over us and arrogantly mistreat us.” (1:27,28) This shows their high regard for leadership that was primarily political/military instead of religious.
In the author’s preface (2:19-23), the almost complete neglect of anything spiritual sticks out. “The heroes who fought bravely” are mentioned as well as the repossessing of the land. What is noticeably lacking is the temple or almost any aspect of repentance on the people’s part in order to bring them into a right relationship with God. While this is mentioned at times in the book, the emphasis seems to be on the side of military conquest and not pure religion. This is sharply contrasted with the teachings and actions of John the Baptist and Jesus in the Gospels.
Also, the priests are at the mercy of the invading armies (chapter 4) but not the family of Mattathias (Maccabees). The corruption of the priesthood as mere political puppets in the hands of the Ptolemies and Seleucids seemed to have caused the people to look elsewhere for their leadership. At this time, their spiritual leader Menelaus (who purchased the position of high priest) supplanted Jason who had previously held that role and then the murder of Onias (Jason’s brother) occurs - all in rapid succession. Such irreligious activity by those who were supposed to be the proper leaders caused the people to look elsewhere for someone to guide them.
It was the military victories of the family of Mattathias (Maccabees) that seems to have paved the way for this new paradigm where key leaders needed to be primarily military leaders. Those victories which Judas enjoyed at Nicanor (8:8-29) and the defeat of Timothy and Bacchides (8:30-33) as well as the many other military victories cause the reader to understand the strong attraction of such a leader to an Israelite whose history includes so little independence as a nation.
Judas, “hanging up Nicanor’s head on the wall of the citadel,” seems to round off the book with this military emphasis. It is more easily understood how a Jewish person during the time of Christ would not understand who Jesus was despite the many signs he gave because they were expecting a military leader in similar fashion to the Maccabees. It was unclear to them that He had to come once as a lamb and later as a lion. The military aspects of the Messiah have simply yet to be realized, and in this way the mindset of many of the Jewish people during the time of Christ was perhaps not completely without reason, but it did lack God’s perfect timing.
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